Lebanon’s prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri, has presented President Michel Aoun with a “cabinet formula,” an allocation of cabinet seats that reflects the size of parliamentary blocs. Aoun, however, turned down the formula, and announced instead his intention to “send a letter” to parliament to ask that it votes on replacing Hariri. If parliament does vote down Hariri, it will mark a constitutional precedent. But what seems like a disagreement over a few cabinet seats in fact reflects an effort by Aoun, and behind him Hezbollah, to upend the Lebanese constitution, as amended in Taef in 1990, and restore it to the days when the president, rather than the cabinet, held the levers of executive power.
“Aoun and Hezbollah never agreed to the Taef amendments, which transferred presidential powers to the cabinet and made it a collective executive body,” said Makram Rabah, a lecturer in history at the American University of Beirut. “It is ironic that, when Aoun took his oath of office in 2016, he swore to protect a constitution that he has been set to undermine and restore back to its pre-Taef days,” he added.
The fact is, a stronger Aoun means a weaker Lebanon, because “Aoun’s strength comes on the back of Hezbollah’s muscle, and hence, Aoun’s strength comes with a high price tag: Undermining Lebanese sovereignty in a way that suits Hezbollah best.”
While renegotiating the constitution in a way that scraps Taef might be the ultimate goal of both Aoun and Hezbollah, the two allies disagree on the next step: Aoun wants to restore the constitution to its pre-1990 iteration, while Hezbollah believes that any change should recognize contemporary demographic realities and should divide the state into three constituencies — the Christians, Shia and Sunni — instead of its current split between Christians and all Muslims.
Aoun supporters have flirted with the idea of shrinking the Christian share in the state, from one half to one third, in return for restoring presidential powers. The Aounists hope that Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, will become the next president, and hence plan their policies in increments of six years, equivalent to one presidential term.
To the Aounists’ misfortune, however, the Maronite Church, together with non-Aounist lawmakers such as the Lebanese Forces, oppose amendments as envisioned by Aoun and Hezbollah. Together with Hariri’s lawmakers and other blocs, such as that of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, these groups can ensure that Aoun and Hezbollah never attain the two-third parliamentary majority required for any amendment.
Because a constitutional amendment looks impossible, Aoun has been trying to push presidential prerogatives within the current constitution to their limits. Aoun is also trying to institute a number of “conventions” that would further empower him, and hopefully his son-in-law after him.
During the days when Lebanon was sharply divided between two coalitions, the Hezbollah-led “March 8” and the anti-Hezbollah “March 14” movements, the country elected army commander Michel Suleiman as a “consensus” president. When March 8 and March 14 could not agree on who would get the “sovereign portfolios,” such as the ministries of interior and defense, a compromise would end up with them in the hands of Suleiman. The portfolios came to be known as the “president’s share.” Seeing Suleiman as a rival back then, Aoun opposed the concept of the president’s share.
But now that Aoun is president, he insists on a presidential share in the cabinet independent of Bassil’s bloc. If such a convention becomes the norm, Aoun would have increased presidential power in a way that conflicts with the thinking behind the Taef amendment.
Aoun’s demand is coupled with a bullying campaign that his and Hezbollah’s media outlets have waged against Hariri. While Aoun and Hezbollah have obstructed the formation of the cabinet, they have blamed Hariri and warned him of the dire consequences of leaving the country without a cabinet. Aoun and Hezbollah have also threatened to withdraw Hariri’s designation, should he fail to form a cabinet soon.
Yet this is where Aoun’s constitutional powers hit their limit. According to Ali Mourad, professor of law at Beirut Arab University, there is nothing Aoun can do to force Hariri to form a cabinet. “Article 54 of the constitution, as amended in Taef, is clear,” Mourad said. “The president signs only two decrees independently, appointing a prime minister and accepting the cabinet’s resignation. All other laws require a joint signature with the prime minister.”
Mourad said that there is nothing Aoun can do to force Hariri’s hand. Aoun cannot withdraw his appointment of Hariri or replace him, which means that Hariri has no deadline to form the cabinet.
According to Mourad, Aoun can, however, obstruct cabinet formation by not signing the formation decree jointly with Hariri, as constitutionally required. But politically, stalling reflects badly on the president, so Aoun has an interest in speeding up the formation of the cabinet, yet he has also been trying to force Hariri to form a cabinet that would give Bassil, if he becomes president, more power.
Believing that the Christians are their natural allies, the Shia Hezbollah want Aoun to prevail over Sunni Hariri, mainly by creating new precedents in the concept of the “president’s share.” In Hezbollah’s mind, as long as such precedents are not enshrined in the constitution, they remain open to reversal, should the party find itself, sometime in the future, allied with the Sunnis against the Christians. After all, no matter how ideological it depicts itself, Hezbollah has been known for taking politically expedient decisions, as well as for reversing earlier positions, such as in extending the mandate of former President Emile Lahoud with a majority, but then insisting on a national unity cabinet.
Hezbollah and Aoun’s obstruction in forming the cabinet might be deeper than just disagreeing over a few cabinet seats. But it is certainly not as deep as changing the constitution in ways that do not guarantee the party’s dominance in the future. Constitution or not, the reality in Lebanon remains that the state — and all politics — operate with Hezbollah’s non-state power lurking in dark corners.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.